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April 2, 2011
Inconsistencies is the seventh chapter of "" and the start of a story arc about Iroh's first mission. It will be darker than previous chapter so this chapter is rated PG-13. It isn't suitable to persons under the age of thirteen. This chapter will also add to the background of the Avatar World.
This is also a very, very long chapter.
The author is quite tired and will further expand this page as time goes on. Please be kind to him.
To be expanded later on.
The author would like to thank Vulmen who fixed the problems on this page. :)
There were a lot of chatting in the room, as it was said to be one of the most important declarations which would be ever made on the outstanding fanon "Sozin's Blood". They were boiling with frustration.
The red curtain lifted and a very old, very small man entered the auditorium. The assembly applauded with enthusiasm.
Hayao smiled and took the microphone. "I thank you to have come so numerous here today. The Management has decided it would be better if my humble person made an official announcement to tell you about some changes in the set-up of "Sozin's Blood". I will then answer to your questions if you wish."
The room was filled with silent adoration.
Hayao took some notes from under his red coat. "I must first warn whoever reads this that this chapter has been deemed unsuitable for persons under the age of thirteen years old. If you are twelve, or under, please leave this room and chapter page."
There were some talking in the back of the auditorium. "Okay, Twinkle toes, get out of here. You're too young and fragile to be here today."
"Oh, come on, Toph, I'm 112 years old, I can stay. But you on the contrary..."
"Try to make me leave if you're tough enough."
There were some noises of fighting, the sound of a water whip, a brief scream of "IT WILL QUENCH YA!" until finally, an Avatar State later, order was brought back in the room.
Someone raised her hand.
"Yes?" said Hayao.
"Skybender 101, from "Rabid Fans Daily"." declared the pretty young woman. "Why is this chapter rated this way?"
"Murder." Hayao simply answered.
The rumble of conversations started anew until someone else raised his hand.
"Vulmen Matrias, from "The Fanon Reviewing Post"." the man said. "In which way will this chapter influence the remaining of the series?"
"That's a good question. "Inconsistencies" will introduce my student to cases he will face in battles, and it's the beginning of the long journey which ultimately leads him to be the wise old man you love, who took Ba Sing Se from the Fire Nation. Another question? Yes?"
"Hirohitaba, "Baba", from "The Single Mad Grannies Times". Are you..."
The male journalist raised his hand again. "You said, 'changes'. Plural. What other changes will happen?"
"From now on," Hayao declared, "I will narrate a little introductory text which will sum up what happened before. It's a completely new concept, no one has ever done it before. I call it ..."
Previously, on Sozin's Blood
"My student finds truest, deepened love with Cixi after a temporary separation, while Jiuan continues to be burnt by his forbidden passion for Cixi, but his loyalty finally goes to Iroh when he is given the chance to put the scales in his favor. Meanwhile, Azulon receives very worrying military reports..."
Haoru, holding a pipa, entered Iroh's bedroom. It was the Crown Prince's eighteenth birthday, and although
tradition forbid them to wish him a happy birthday before the actual celebration, the Fire Lady had ordered them
to make his day as perfect as possible.
One of Haoru's tasks was also the constant silencing and/or elimination of whatever could bring bad luck to the Crown Prince. And many things could go wrong on the day a young man became an adult: the passage of black Bearded Cats, exploding donkeys, shattered mirrors, dancing Badgerfrogs... Despite the Fire Lords' best efforts, the poorer classes, from which came Haoru, and the people from the most remote islands, like the Fire Lady, remained highly superstitious.
He sat on an armchair and started to pinch the strings, producing eerie sounds. He then cleared his throat and began playing.
"On the day of his eighteenth birthday, His Majesty has to wake uuuuuup." he sang with a shrill voice. "Otherwise, he won't be able to enjooo-oy the suuuun." His fingers were playing an heavenly music. Birds stopped twittering to listen to it.
Iroh turned in his bed, groaning, still asleep.
"This is the most important day of your life, the one when you become an aduuuuuult. Well, actually," he declared with a normal voice, "your wedding or the birth of your first child are certainly more important. But anywaaaaaay!" he insisted, his voice reaching new heights. The glass of Iroh's windows shattered. But the Crown Prince was still sleeping.
He was snoring actually.
"Please, wa-a-ke up," he begged, "and it will allow me to stop singing in that ridicuuu-ulous voooooiice!"
Iroh snored even more. Saliva was dripping from his lips.
One of the strings of Haoru's pipa split and snapped, emitting the sound of a spring. Haoru stopped singing and started to shake Iroh. "WOULD YOU MIND WAKING UP?" Iroh drooled on his sheets, his eyes still shut.
Haoru, his face scarlet with anger, rose and lifted the pipa, intending to smash it in frustration. At this moment, the door opened and Hayao entered, shouting "Student!". The eyes of Iroh opened immediately and his first vision was his angry servant with a heavy pipa above him. The look in Haoru's eyes meant murder. Iroh jumped in fear then tackled Haoru and put his pipa on his throat. "What were you about to do with that pipa?"
"Shatter it on the ground to make you get up, I guess?" the Crown Prince's head servant replied with a hoarse voice. He inhaled with difficulty, like a koi fish out of the water. "Could His Majesty release my throat? My respiration will be eased."
Iroh gave him a hand and helped him stand up. He noticed both Haoru and Hayao were closing their eyes with conviction.
"What?" Iroh asked.
Haoru just handed him pants. Iroh looked down, gasped and blushed. "Er, can I have a little intimacy for a second?" he told them with a tiny voice.
Haoru, a hand still before the eyes but who knew anyway the place by heart, managed to grab a colorful folding screen and put it before Iroh. Sighing with relief as he finally stopped blinding himself, the servant also made a ceramic basin slid on the wooden ground.
"Why did you all invade my private space on this special day?" Iroh asked, washing his face with the clear water.
"I was tasked to wake up His Majesty as swiftly as possible." Haoru croaked, massaging his neck. "I think it's quite a failure."
Hayao bowed. "I'm sorry, student, but I have to tell you something." He inhaled deeply. "Happy birthday."
Iroh and Haoru looked at him, eyes wide in shock. Then, roaring savagely, the servant charged and attacked the midget. With the pipa. Manipulating it like a soldier master in the use of a mace, he made the stringed musical instrument swivel in his hand before thrusting it at Hayao's head. The tutor however rocketed himself backwards with fire before being hit and jumped with surprising agility on the beams of the ceiling. Haoru, still shrieking, threw the pipa with deadly accuracy in the direction of the small teacher. Sadly for the servant, Iroh incinerated the instrument with a quick punch.
"Calm down." he ordered. "Haoru, I can understand that you are ... upset with that disrespect for our traditions. However, this is no reason for attempting to murder someone in my room."
"I wouldn't have killed him!" Haoru protested.
"What would have you done then?"
"Er...Splinter his skull?"
Iroh ignored this last comment. "Hayao, why did you trigger the wrath of a notoriously superstitious person?"
"I'm not!" Haoru objected. "A badgerfrog croaked in the garden. The servant jumped, made some gestures which were supposed to ward him from evil and exited the room. They heard him mumble something about a new pipa.
"I can wish you a jolly birthday, student," Hayao sadly stated, "because you'll have no celebration today."
Iroh raised an eyebrow. "What? Why?"
"Your father wants to see how well-trained you are, before unveiling what awaits you in your military career."
Iroh sighed. "I guess it had to eventually happen." He put on his shirt and tunic. "Any idea of where he wants to send me?"
The midget stroke his goatee. "Certainly not on the Western Serpent's Lake, student. It seems an Earth Kingdom officer drove our forces out of our positions."
Iroh tied his hair. "Really? But the Western Lake has been ours for years! It's supposed to be our way to Ba Sing Se."
"Maybe. But that Klamen man pierced through our lands. A battle is taking place at this moment, whose outcome will decide the development of the War in the years to come. Your father himself might intervene."
The Crown Prince smugly grinned. "Ah, then, shall my father step in, they don't stand a chance."
Hayao smiled. "Indeed; but anyway, you are too important to be involved in such an important conflict. We cannot afford your loss, student."
"So, with no battlefield neither too important to test my skills nor too minor to protect my life, we have no idea of the place where I shall be assigned." He walked in circle. "Omashu?"
"No, student, King Bumi is far too dangerous."
"No strategic goal."
"Chameleon Bay would be perfect to unleash our forces on Ba Sing Se."
"Later, maybe, but now student it is far much important to secure our current positions. For once, I don't know."
Iroh finished binding his robes. "Very well, knowledge comes to who arms himself with patience."
Hayao nodded in appreciation. "Today you will first practice your strategic wits with me, student."
"That means Pai Sho!" Iroh cheered.
"Then you will train with the Fire Lord."
Iroh scowled. "Less fun. And after that?"
"Depending on your results, he will decide what will be your schedule."
The young prince suddenly stopped in his preparations. "I had invited Cixi and Jiuan today. But I guess they can't come here, unless they want to babysit Ozai." He turned to face his tutor. "Would you ask Haoru to warn them?"
From the garden came shouting, croaks, the noise of trampled flowers and, regularly, what sounded like the strings of a pipa.
"...when he'll be done with his business?" added Iroh.
"Well, pupil Jiuan?" Mr Luong declared with the smile of a Wolf Shark. "At what time did Sozin's Comet enter the atmosphere fifty-four years ago?"
Jiuan felt sweat slid on his back. Old crab, he thought, I can bet you won't be satisfied if I don't give you the exact second.
Mr Luong tapped his fingers on his desk, his face adorned with a satisfied smile. Finally, he mentally told himself, after all these years, I'll finally make Jiuan, the great Jiuan, bane of the teachers, scourge of the educational system, I'll finally make him say: "I don't know, Sir." His eye twitched with joy. And I will be able to punish you as you deserve it. I shall finally have my revenge for this pants incident! "And you will give me, by the way, the exact mass of the comet, the angle of its trajectory and the definition of what is Sozin's Comet actually." he furthered for sheer pleasure.
Jerk. Jiuan mentally denigrated.
Idiot. Mr Luong inwardly insulted.
Iroh isn't here to save the day now. they both thought.
I'll need a miracle. Jiuan despaired.
He'll need a miracle. Mr Luong rejoiced.
The door slammed open. Trumpets and tsungi horns thundered, making the whole class jump. A red velvet carpet came from the entrance and unrolled towards Jiuan. A broad-chested herald, as scarlet as a cooked lobster shrimp, walked pompously towards the kleptomaniac boy and announced to the dumbstruck assembly: "His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Iroh of the Fire Nation, has written a message to Jiuan, son of Lord Bernhong."
Jiuan raised his hand but the herald splendidly ignored him and asked to the gathering: "Is Jiuan, son of Lord Bernhong, here?"
Jiuan tried to grab the scroll, but the herald snatched it. His eyes were full of snobbism. "Are you Jiuan, son of Lord Bernhong?" he demanded.
"Yes." Jiuan sighed.
"I have a message for Jiuan, son of Lord Bernhong." continued the herald, sticking to the etiquette.
"Yeah, you already told us so." Jiuan rolled his eyes and opened the scroll. The herald's eyes opened with shock and stared at the place where the message had been five seconds ago.
"Dear Jiuan," said the message, "you know I wanted you to come today..." ("Blah, blah, blah." Jiuan brooded.) "...but my father..." Basically, the Fire Lord was pressuring Iroh again and left him no opportunity to have a party.
There was a post-scriptum however that lightened his mood up. An additional note was scribbled in a corner: "Knowing you, you'll need it."
"Er, okay people," Jiuan declared, "as you know, my buddy Iroh turns eighteen today and..."
The herald, lips whitened with disdainful rage, teeth bared, grasped the message and read: 'His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Iroh, is bestowed the honor by His father, Fire Lord Azulon, to dismiss all educational classes on his eighteenth birthday, as He thinks everyone should celebrate in this day of glee." He looked at the pupils, who couldn't believe their ears. "You are therefore free."
He was stomped by the exciting teenagers who escaped from the academy as fast as they could, leaving him with a wide-open-mouthed Mr Luong in the empty room. As servants rolled back the velvet carpet, the herald readjusted his mustache, brushed the dirt out of his torn outfit and bowed to Mr Luong in an arrogant fashion. He then exited the school, abandoning the teacher to the void of his place of work.
Mr Luong wept and, dizzy, came likewise out of the class. He grabbed the nearest person, which happened to be the headmaster, and started to shake him feverishly.
"I was so close!" he screamed. "So close!"
His pants suddenly fell on the ground, revealing his white undergarments.
Mr Luong looked at the headmaster.
The headmaster glared at Mr Luong.
"I'll catch him one day." Mr Luong madly confessed to his boss. "I'LL CATCH HIM EVENTUALLY!"
"Don't you want a day off, Luong?" the headmaster asked.
The distraught teacher whimpered. His chief patted his shoulder. "There, there." he whispered.
"Airbenders being extinct, Waterbenders not being a threat at all those days and Firebenders being ... well, being us, I don't think I'm wrong to assume, student, that you'll deal with Earthbenders."
"I'm amazed by your logic, Sifu. I guess you desire to ask me some essential questions on Earthbending, am I right?"
"It's my turn to be amazed with your logic, student."
They were as usual in the Tea Pagoda in the gardens of the Palace. In the middle of the eighth month like now, most of the tropical flowers which originated from the Fire Nation were in full bloom. Fire lilies exhibited their sweet red petals, orchids of light curled up and coiled out of the turf, their brightly colored corollas of various hues of yellow dangling in the wind. Dragon hyacinths were proudly showing off, growing in huddled up blossoms. Only the Tortoise Tulips from the Earth Kingdom, the dearest to Fire Lady Ilah's heart, were sulking, sleeping in their green calyxes. The air was full of delightful fragrances.
Iroh drank from his teacup and sighed with pleasure. "Green tea from the coast might have a little taste of iodine that many find disagreeable, I on the other hand am very fond of it." He paused. "But nothing gets close to the perfection of Ginseng Tea. Its delicate tuber, linking earth and air, bringing water and life, uniting the four elements as light creates the fires of energy in its thick leaves... You have the sensation you're drinking the essence of our existence when drinking Ginseng."
"Although I agree on most of your statement, I cannot however relinquish my thoughts. I have to say I prefer Jasmine Tea for his more delicate taste, which to me is reminiscent of springtime. At times, its sweet aroma flatters my palate so much that I can almost feel its mauve buds caressing the chamber of my mouth. The scent of the newly opened flowers reminds me of my childhood, when I was young and innocent. It exalts my senses."
They sighed in chorus.
"Enough delicate talk, student, I would be executed on the spot if your father learned that we are losing time speaking of tea. So ...Earthbending?"
"One of the four, now three, Bending arts. Some people in the Earth Kingdom can focus their chi to the point they can control earth, not only dirt, mind you, but also rock, sand, crystal and other various gem-like materials. Since there's earth everywhere, it's quite hard to prevent an Earthbender from Bending."
"Speaking of which, student, what are the weaknesses of Earthbending?"
"Metal, and wood to a lesser extent. Solid materials they cannot bend. They also must be in direct contact with the ground. Most of them go bare-foot! It's huge as a disadvantage."
"So, if you have Earthbenders you want to control ..."
"I just have to put them on metal, far from earth. Or in a wooden boat."
"You mentioned naked feet. Why, student, doesn't it hurt them to walk like that?"
Iroh glanced at him in a strange way. "How is that supposed to help me on the battlefield?"
"You never know, student. During the Siege of the North Pole, almost forty years ago, one Waterbender made terrible damages in our ranks because he was able to overflow the inner workings of the lower body."
Iroh snorted. "Oh, you mean..."
Hayao gravely nodded.
"Oh my. It must have been horrible..."
"It was awful, student. But, to get back to the feet of the Earthbenders..."
"Oh, much walking hardens the soles of their feet I guess. Also, they use their power to make the earth sweeter to their contact."
"Exactly, student. The ground is more tender where they stand. That's there you must strike, student."
He sipped from his teacup.
"Quite a good summary, student. You know the essential."
"What? Sifu, I have told you almost nothing!"
"Perhaps, student, but I now prefer to talk about your strategical basics." Hayao stated while installing his Pai Sho board. "As you know, with Firebending, this class is essential to your success in war. Now, tell me..." He made a dramatic pause. "What did you first learn of Pai Sho?"
"That each tile, even the most insignificant, if placed correctly, can change the outcome of the battle, er, I mean the game. And you lose your White Lotus tile."
Hayao's brow furrowed. "Very good, student. I didn't see that coming." He raised veined eyes. "You just destroyed my whole master plan."
"It took me a decade, but I finally analyzed your tactics and I even managed to find a weakness." He joined his hands. "Try to win now."
"Oh, I really can, student." With a ferocious move, he kicked his pupil's Black Primrose out of the board and put his tiles in positions from which he could clutch most of Iroh's pieces. "You are in a dire situation, student."
Iroh seemed unfazed. "The Rainbow Lobster. Hayao, this is so not worthy of you."
"Had you listened to my precepts, student, you would know..."
"... that I must not let pride overcome my reason? That I shall never sell the hide of a Platypus Bear without having killed it? And that I shall never talk when I could invest my time in strategy? Oh don't worry I listened perfectly to your councils."
"Then what does the proverb with the bear mean, student?"
"I must not act like I have already won until I actually am victorious. Otherwise, I might regret it as the Platypus Bear shall eat me. You lose your Rainbow Lobster by the way."
"But you lose your Scarlet Dragon anyway, student. On which was based your strategy."
"I am however impressed by the progress you've made, student. Very few persons have been that close to win a Pai Sho game against me. My little brother, for one."
"Your brother? You have a brother?"
"Of course I have a brother, student. At least I had. He died many years ago in the War."
"There's no need to apologize, student. My sorrow withered a long time ago, leaving only occasional nostalgia." As many old people who recalled their past, his gaze became distant.
"You lose your Lucky Cornucopia, your Holy Sun, your Ice Whale and your Warty Badgerfrog ."
The tutor laughed - something Iroh wasn't used to. "Maybe, student, but you are deprived of your Incandescent Pearl, your Moon Flowers, your Black Nightingale, your Cherry Blossoms and your Cosmic Cabbages ."
"But you lose your Lion Turtle!" Iroh chuckled.
"Aha, but you suffer the loss of yours, student." the old tutor retorted.
Forty-two ejected Pai Sho tiles later, each of them only had one piece left. And none could move without losing.
"A draw." Hayao finally said.
"I never saw that." Iroh admitted.
"I'm proud of you, student. You managed to amaze me in Pai Sho matters, something which didn't happen in forty years." He looked at him with eyes full of love. "Ten years ago, I met a young energetic boy, who was full of promises and who was and is the joy of his parents. And I never was disappointed by you." His lips curled in a moue. "Even if sometimes you can be..."
"Shallow? Hedonistic? Lazy? Air-headed?"
"... acting as an immature teenager."
He bowed, his bones creaking. "I'm honored to have you as a student."
Iroh suddenly hugged him. "And I couldn't have dreamed of a better master and a better friend."
Hayao, unknown to Iroh, shed a few tears. The strong teenager and the old midget remained tightly in each other's embrace, like a son and his father.
For some reason, the students of the Royal Academy for Girls had preferred to stay for lunch and now they were chatting. Chatting! Jiuan thought with indignation. How blatant when I've been waiting here since the tenth hour of the morning! He had just left his position around noon, to buy a Komodo sausage in Blazing Street, but otherwise he had baked under the sun while yearning for the moment the girls would finally come out of the building.
At long last, Cixi and her friend departed the courtyard. Jiuan eagerly strolled towards her. She saw him, beamed but did no gesture to chase her friend. Jiuan slightly frowned, but said nothing. As he came closer, he noticed both were crying.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
Cixi sniffed. "In ten days, school will be over." She laughed sadly. "Forever."
"... And?" Jiuan questioned. To him, the perspective of the end of school for good was something he was excitedly expecting.
"We'll never see each other again." Cixi revealed.
"Er... why not?"
They were sobbing, but somehow they also giggled.
"I'm getting married at that date." Zola disclosed.
"Oh." Jiuan blankly uttered. He didn't understand what was all the fuss about. "Congratulations."
They laughed. Girls can act strange at times. he pondered.
"I'm quite lucky." Zola admitted. "He's strong and handsome and very funny." She wailed. "But his parents live in the Colonies!"
"Ouch. I'm sorry then." Colonials were said to be terribly bad-mannered.
"You know they say that the Earth Kingdom soil had corrupted their inner flames? Someone told me they don't wash every day and that they don't know courtesy!" Zola worried.
Cixi comforted her. "It will be okay, since you say he is nice. You two will be happy together."
"I know. But I'll miss you!" They cradled each other, crying, while Jiuan wondered about the quirks of girls.
"I guess I have to go." Zola eventually told them. "I will see you tomorrow, Cix'."
After plenty more of hugs and tears, she finally ran towards her home.
Cixi wiped her tears. "Poor Zola. Yesterday we were still young teenage girls, full of dreams and ideals. And now, reality has finally caught up."
"Well, you can't really complain; it's a kind of fairy tale for you. You'll become a princess, married to a handsome prince. And one day you'll be the queen of the country."
She cackled bitterly. "Ha, if he wants he can throw me away and abandon me."
"But he won't. He'll never do."
"We're not even fiancés yet. My parents could marry me off to anyone."
"Are you kidding me? They won't lose the opportunity to have their child become a member of the Royal family."
She sniffed. "What about you?"
He stared at her stupidly. "What?"
"To who do your parents plan to marry you?"
And Jiuan suddenly became aware of the fact that he would get married one day, and certainly not to Cixi.
"I...I don't know." he admitted. "I had never really thought about it. Our marrying age is 18 as you know. I'll become marriageable in winter."
"So lucky. The legal age to marry us is 16."
Actually, it was 14, but even the most selfish and heartless nobles didn't have the heart to marry off their daughters at such a young age.
The young kleptomaniac sat, bewildered. "Oh gosh. I will marry."
"What did you think? That you would stay single forever?"
Cixi sighed. "You do know that one day you'll become an adult?"
Cixi gave him a strange look. "Please, please tell me you are joking."
"Of course I am. Here's your wallet by the way."
She smacked him on the arm. "You can be so annoying at times!"
"What are we going to do, Cix'? " he asked. "Now that the Palace is temporarily forbidden to us?"
She shrugged. "Well, I don't know about you, but I'm gonna hang around with Zola, since it will probably be one of the last time I'll be able to do so. See you soon?"
"Oh, er, yes. I guess." he lamely stated. He helplessly watched as she left, his love, his desperate, helpless love craving for her.
He then saw something, something so incredible, that washed out all his troubled thoughts.
Iroh leapt and as he glided into the air, he Firebent streams of fire from his mouth, fists and feet. The heat was so strong that one of the columns of the Sun Lounge actually crumbled.
"Mediocre." Azulon criticized.
Iroh frowned. He landed at the center of the lounge and spinned on one his left foot, his stretched right leg rattling the ground. The already burning spots and those which were shining with a reddish light because of the heat blazed with more vivacity at each rotation. Iroh continued to augment the pre-existing fire before changing his rhythm. His chi he had been holding for so long that his ears were buzzing was finally free and with a triumphant roar set the air alight. The entire room was drowned in a mighty inferno. It was a gigantic unstable sphere of fire, like a small sun, with multiple wild lashes and streams coming out of it. They singed and blackened and destroyed several bits of the palace. Merchants and passerby stopped doing their activity to behold this fiery monster.
The miniature sun crumbled in a tornado of fire and unraveled, shrinking at each second. It finally disappeared completely, revealing a panting Iroh, sweating heavily, his hands put on his knees. The world seemed to be turning around him. He felt like he could faint at any second.
With a light hand, Azulon made disappear the shield of blue fire he had used to protect himself. "It was too much." he coldly declared. "Although it gives me a good appreciation of your might and your resourcefulness, I would just need to send the most frail of my fireballs to kill you. You must always have energy left. Otherwise, you'll die." With a turn of the finger, he put out the remaining flames. Behind him, a good part of the palace crumbled. "However, this being only a training session, I shall be merciful for once and close my eyes."
Iroh bowed with difficulty. "Thank you, father."
Azulon, his face still showing no emotion, glared at him. "It is time, now that you are going to leave to the Front, to teach you a skill reserved to the most powerful of Firebenders."
Iroh raised his eyes. This was taking an unexpected but interesting turn.
Azulon took a stance. "On what do our flames feed?"
"On our anger, our hatred, our rage. Though hatred is best."
"Exactly. It feeds on our most basic and feral instincts. It feeds on the chaos of our emotions. Fire is chaos, Prince Iroh. Where it goes, it destroys."
Iroh nodded. He already knew that.
"You must also know that fire, being energy, is everywhere. In our muscles, when the air, the water and the food which grow on earth and from which we depend are changed into the fire that makes us live and animates us. Which by the way proves fire is the superior element." He started to make circular moves with his arms. "But fire is also in the tiniest parts of matter, keeping them together in a precarious balance."
A blue spark detonated near Azulon's right thumb, but Iroh dismissed it as his father's typical blue fire.
"Being tools of chaos," Azulon continued, "and masters of fire, we can disrupt the equilibrium of the very fabric of reality and create an unbalance, separate positive and negative, yin and yang."
Another blue spark exploded but this time Iroh wasn't sure it was fire. He noticed his father's hair was starting to float, undulating.
"Nature being what it is, it seeks to regain its stability by the unleashing of powerful forces, thus creating..."
He showed his open palms, revealing two small nuclei of electricity, vibrating in a dangerous and frightening way, casting a violent light blue and somewhat eerie light on Azulon's face. Iroh opened his eyes widely."... lightning."
He turned in the opposite direction and unleashed the electrical force. It discharged at blinding speed, scarring, tearing and clawing the wall it hit. Thunder hammered Iroh's ears. It was so powerful that it created a forceful hot gale that the Crown Prince had difficulty standing upright.
After a long minute, the Fire Lord finally stopped generating lightning. Where Iroh's fire and Azulon's electricity had hit, there was now a deep crater at the place where had stood the wall and everything that was several feet behind.
(Luckily, the servants were warned of the outstanding power of the members of the Royal Family and always took a long detour when their ruler and his son practised Firebending. Nobody died or was hurt.)
"Lightning," Azulon told his son, "is wild and dangerous. It is one of the fundamental forces of Nature. We cannot control it; we can merely guide it. Unlike our fire which is lethal only if we desire so, the terrible power of lightning is always deadly. It is so strong and so intoxicating that if not executed in the right state of mind, it can overpower us ... and madden us."
Iroh gulped. It wasn't that fun anymore.
"To make us unreachable to its exhilarating toxicity and counter-balance its power of pure chaos, we can, however, only generate lightning with the most complete state of mind and the total absence of emotion."
"Now, do it."
Iroh took a stance and started imitating the gestures of his father.
"Clear your mind." His spirit had become logical, cold and calculating and able to pierce through matter and split it. He was able to discern the positive and the negative, the negative turning around the positive. He just then had to take the negative and put it at another place. This made the whole highly unstable ; he knew he just had to let a little emotion and too much chi go in and it would blow up at his face.
The created lightning just had to be harnessed, to not let it go all at once. He needed the circular movements of his arms to reassure him, for one, and to tentatively put it in the bad direction, aka him. It was terrifying. With a groan, he released it. As it struck the charred crater, the freedom and the sensation of relief that occurred when he felt its terrible weight leave his hands made him ecstatic. Each time he was done with one attempt, for a second he craved to do it over and over again, until exhaustion.
Intoxicating was a perfect choice of words.
After five hours of bitter work, the Crown Prince was finally ready.
"Very good, Prince Iroh." his father coldly complimented him. "The simple fact that you manage to create lightning is a testimony to your power."
For fun, Iroh was creating sparks repeatedly. "I think I have a hand for it." he declared as he stretched his left arm. He inadvertently fired a bolt which arched above the walls of the palace before plummeting in a mighty explosion.
From the city came the horrified scream of a distraught man. "MY TURNIPS!"
Iroh's mouth became tiny and he blushed.
His father raised an eyebrow. "Though you have obviously not mastered it."
He started to walk towards his quarters. "I'll set a final test in the late afternoon. You'll see that it will become your most powerful weapon. On the day where the Great Comet of Power came, your grandfather could reportedly kill dozens of Air Nomads with one bolt." He glared at him. "In the meantime, I encourage you to train." He left without adding another thing.
It struck a familiar chord within Iroh. It reminded him of something similar, two years ago, on exactly the same day.
Jiuan was dumbstruck. This couldn't be happening. It was impossible. The craziest madman wouldn't have thought about it.
Mr Luong, the great Mr Luong, bane of the pupils, scourge of a whole generation, the one man in this world Jiuan feared, Mr Luong ...
... was blushing violently as he hid behind a granite lantern, a bouquet of Fire Lilies in one hand and what looked like ... what looked like a poem in the other. He was passionately watching a young woman, who seemed to be a teacher, walking out of the Royal Academy for Girls.
The terrifying teacher he had (grudgingly) got used to was now acting as one of the teenagers he disliked so much. Holy freaking monkey, he behaves like Iroh!
How hard and harsh he was in class, Mr Luong clearly wasn't a master in courtship rituals. The woman had clearly seen him, as she had slightly blushed, but none of them did a gesture or a move towards the other.
Jiuan sensed an agreeable surge of power, as he had amazing possibilities to plague Mr Luong with misfortune and mayhem, depending on how he turned the situation to his advantage.
He snuck up from behind. "Mr Luong!" he exclaimed.
The teacher jumped several feet in the air. When he turned back to face the nosy schoolboy, his face was more red with embarrassment than with anger. "Pupil Jiuan... What are you doing here?"
The kleptomaniac decided to strike at a soft spot. "Why, Mr Luong, don't you know there is no school today?"
The eye of the teacher twitched and he started to toy with his black sideburns. Aha, Jiuan told himself, touché!
He added a layer of pain. "Mr Luong," he innocently inquired, "what are you doing behind this stone lantern?"
Mr Luong's skin turned from scarlet to deep vermilion. "What? What? N... N... No... Nothing!" he spluttered.
"What is this paper in your hand?" Jiuan went on with pleasure, still speaking with fake stupidity. "Can I see it?"
"No!" Mr Luong finally seemed to regain control of his mouth, and the palpitating veins of his temples announced the forthcoming explosion of one of his infamous temper tantrums. He protectively shielded the poem from the teenage threat. "It's mine!"
However, he had nothing left in his hand. He stared at it, astonished, as Jiuan unrolled the "missing" scroll.
It was written in a beautiful way; black calligraphs were spread on the yellow and rough paper, drawn large but a bit shaking.
The poem, however, was of a rare beauty. It described the qualities of the woman, singing her beauty, her niceness, her distinction. The ode was similar to a curtain; in the darkness, it was slowly raised to reveal divine light and an array of colours, rainbows, flowers, butterflies and birds. All mixed and blended to trill the portrait of the most perfect women in the world.
Jiuan raised his eyes from the scroll. Mr Luong was staring at him, pale, expecting sarcasm and cynism.
"This is wonderful." Jiuan admitted.
His teacher pleadingly looked at him with puppy eyes. "Please give it back to me."
"Why don't you give her?"
"I've been courting Wei for three years now, but she has grown tired of romance and gave me the choice: either I asked her to marry me, either we ended our relationship. And I've never been comfortable with it, marriage is very important, it was way too early..."
"So she dumped you, but you're still in love with her and you want to regain her, am I right?"
"So typical..." Jiuan sighed. "You'll never have the guts to give it to her, right?"
"Maybe tomorrow will be a better day..." Seeing where this conversation was going, his frail voice became a booming roar. "Do NOT even THINK about giving it to her, pupil Jiuan!" He snatched the poem from Jiuan, growling.
The kleptomaniac shrugged. "It wouldn't have crossed my mind, Sir." Shaking his head, he happily walked towards the female teacher - Wei - one hand in his pocket.
And the other clasping the poem.
Slack-jawed, Mr Luong's teacher instincts made him run towards his insubordinate pupil with homicidal pulsations; however, his amorous instincts shrieked in fear and made him grasp fervently the granite lantern. He hid in terror, shaking.
A little boy came by. "Mom, what is that man doing behind that lantern?"
"There are madmen everywhere, sweetie." his mother answered. She accelerated slightly, whispering: "Freak!"
"Miss!" Jiuan called. The teacher turned back. She had a pale complexion, with cheeks as pink as roses and a delicate frame. She was really pretty.
"Yes?" she asked.
"That scarlet man behind the lantern," - he pointed in the direction of the violently blushing Mr Luong - "wanted me to give this to you." He handed her the poem.
She read it, first skeptically and then with more and more apparent emotion. At the end, tears were sliding down her cheeks.
"This is beautiful." she declared with a broken voice. She looked at Jiuan in an inquisitive way, as if she was trying to study him and see if he was trustworthy. "Could you..." she began with a tiny voice. "Could you ask Luong to meet me on the banks of the Great Lake, at the usual place?" she requested.
"Of course not." He beamed as she left and he was still beaming when he came back to Mr Luong.
"With what I have done for you, I expect nothing less than a heavenly treatment for the ten remaining days of school."
Haoru was patrolling around the walls of the Royal Palace, his pipa ready to the use, when he suddenly saw a Turnip Merchant weeping among his destroyed vegetables.
The servant gasped and frantically took a scroll out of his sleeves. It was entitled "Superstitions and bad omens: how to preserve you from a certain doom, by Dr F.R. Ainshi".
"The number four," said the scroll, "is always a herald of bad luck, as it is pronounced the same way as "death". Be thus sure to suppress all squarish shapes in the vicinity of the person you want to protect." Haoru stopped reading and discovered with horror he was standing in the middle of a perfect square made of turnips. Squealing with hatred at this terrible sight, he battered the innocent vegetables with his pipa, kicked them, ate them, threw them away until there was nothing less on the ground that squashed turnips.
"My turnips!" complained the merchant.
This reminded Haoru of something. He continued his reading, with increasing terror as he delved further in the threats of vegetables.
"Furthermore," had written Dr F.R. Ainshi, "there is no direst menace that a merchant of vegetables. Cabbage sellers are the most potent, but turnips are equally dangerous. Shall someone repeatedly destroy the vegetables of a merchant of vegetables, he will soon be afflicted with incredible misfortune: attack by giant water creatures, loss of a friend in a desolate place, failure in duty, fall of the city (and sometimes the kingdom) you're in, if not death in a dark underground place, preferably struck by lightning."
There were no words to describe the state of panic of Haoru.
"The only way to get rid of the curse is to silence the merchant."
Haoru looked at the distressed vendor of turnips, whose cries were now so high-pitched that you couldn't hear them.
He lifted his pipa.
Hayao was playing Pai Sho against himself when Iroh entered the garden and sat in front of him.
The tutor took a deep breath.
"What?" Iroh asked.
"Usually, student, when you come to see me out of the normal schedule, it is because you are distraught, depressed or in dismay. I'm bracing myself."
Iroh entered the game and took one of his tutor's tiles. "Well, it's not something that makes me sad. Just a thing that bugs me."
"Then I'm here to help you, student. It's the role of the tutor to answer the questions of his pupil."
"We all know that the fourth nation was the Air Nation, a theocracy of masters of air."
"Their citizens were called Air Nation-men, or Air Citizens, whatever."
"Twice in two years, my father referred to them as Air Nomads."
Hayao stopped playing. Wind was blowing on the silent garden.
"This can't be a mistake or a lapsus," Iroh continued, "since he used it more than once. Maybe an ancient denomination?"
"This is no mistake, nor an ancient name." Hayao abruptly declared. "This is the truth."
Iroh blinked. "The truth?"
"What you learn at school, what everyone thinks happened, is a lie."
Hayao was visibly uncomfortable on the topic. "Let's say that some people could have grown sympathetic with the Air Nomads and started to question the regime."
"The Air Nomads were spirited, free, pacifists. They had no military. They were the most virtuous persons I knew." He faintly smiled. "Also, they had a very good sense of humor, with their pies in particular!"
Iroh felt muzzy; this was leagues away of what he was told of the vicious and corrupted Air Priests. "Are you sure?"
Hayao nodded. "Yes. Before the War, the Air Nomads regularly came in the Fire Nation. And I participated in the battle of the Southern Air Temple. I was seventeen at the time."
"Why would they come in the Fire Nation???" Iroh exclaimed.
Hayao sighed. "Student. Air is the element of freedom. The Air Nomads were at home everywhere. They traveled on their Sky Bison and their gliders..."
"Their Sky what?"
"Bison. A type of bovine, the original Airbending masters. They are extinct too, as Sozin didn't want the art of Airbending to survive."
Iroh pictured himself a flying dirty Hippo Cow, with black flies turning around it. He knew they were venturing on dangerous tracks, but his natural curiosity got the better of him. "What can you tell me of them?"
Hayao's gaze became distant. "Air Nomads valued spirituality above anything else, so much that each and every Nomad was an Airbender. As such, the feeling of being part of a whole was emphasised in their education. Children rarely knew their parents, but they were always raised by an elder member of the community. To avoid being corrupted, they didn't use currency, they were vegetarians, they had no industry."
"So they were savages."
"Quite the contrary. The Air Temples are some of the most beautiful buildings I had the chance to see."
"Why were they vegetarians?"
"They valued life ; all living beings are equals... they thought."
Iroh cackled. "So I would be equal to a gnat? To a dolphin? To seaweed?"
"The Air Nomads thought so."
"But the Human race is clearly the most intelligent and the superior species! We created the wheel! Agriculture! Writing! Industry! Tea!"
"But according to the point of view of the Air Nomads, since the human race also created war, poverty, tyranny, racism and many other less than satisfactory things, it would be a reason why gnats, dolphins and seaweed would be superior to humans. Tea, Pai Sho, poetry, art, writing, all of that just come to create balance between our inner good and our not-so-inner evil."
"Some of the things you listed - war, tyranny - are sometimes necessary to reach a state of purity and purge the world from all its filth. And we're not all equals. Some are more intelligent; some are stronger; some are more beautiful... If everyone was allowed a vote and a voice, it would be complete chaos! A dumb person ..."
"Or an evil one." added Hayao.
"Or an evil one," repeated Iroh, "could rise to power and doom us all! Democracy is too messy and never works!"
"An old Air Nomad proverb used to say: "Democracy is the worst of all regimes, save from all the others." "
"They're wrong!" Iroh exclaimed.
"They're not necessarily wrong, student; they just had a view of life which was the complete antithesis of ours."
And since the Fire Nation has proved many times its prosperity and its success, showing to the world our evident superiority, they are wrong. he thought to himself. However, his certitudes had been severely shaken.
"If they were so great and so inoffensive, why did we kill them all?" he grumbled.
"Oh, one simple reason, student: the Avatar." He coughed. "Fire Lord Sozin didn't know who he was; we were only informed that he was a boy and that he was twelve years old. By killing him, we would have had a delay of at least ten years; I'm sure Sozin would have planned to do the same for the Water Tribes. His ultimate objective would have been a Fire Nation-born Avatar that would have helped him win the War. And the Avatar would have anyway be doomed, since with no Air Nomads in which reincarnate, the cycle would have been broken. The Avatar would have been destroyed forever." He snorted. "How ironic that the only Air Nomad who survived was the one we were precisely looking for."
"We killed an entire people to get rid of a twelve-year old child?"
"Yes." Hayao confirmed. "Exactly. Sozin wouldn't have bothered the Air Nomads otherwise. They weren't a threat."
"So this slaughter ... was useless."
"How do you know that the Avatar didn't die on this day?"
Hayao looked in the depths of his teacup. "An old monk of the Southern Air Temple, the most powerful, who killed a hundred of our soldiers, told it to Sozin before the Fire Lord murdered him in rage."
Iroh had a bitter taste in his mouth. He kept repeating in his mind: We did it for the world, we did it for the world. But the words sounded empty and devoid of sense.
"Student, do you want to hear how Airbenders came to be?"
Iroh stopped pondering. "Yes. Yes, I do."
Hayao cleared his throat. "It was in the era before the Avatar. There were wandering tribes who lived on the Patola Mountain Range. One member of such tribes was a young girl named Kyiesa. She was betrothed to a man she didn't love. On the day of their wedding, she decided she would not marry him. She could have walked into the tent and claimed her resolution not to be wed. She could have made the life of her would-be husband impossible until he became fed up of her. She could have married the young man nevertheless and waited for the right moment to cease her relationship. But she preferred to run away, as her most precious gift was her freedom. She wanted to travel and live, and not to be stuck in a foul-smelling tent. However, her fiancé and his family chased her, and soon she was stuck at the edge of a cliff. But she preferred to jump in the chasm to a certain death instead of losing her liberty.
Thanks goodness for her, it was her lucky day. She landed on the hide of a young Sky Bison."
"What was a Sky Bison doing here?"
"Sky Bison migrated each year in flocks on the locations of the current Air Temples. Calves were born where is now the Northern Air Temple, hidden from men by the numerous and thick mountains, were raised where is located the Eastern Air Temple, mated at the Southern and died at the Western Air Temple, where they let their massive bodies sink into the abyss. Can I continue, student?"
"Oh yes, yes. Go on."
"She thus landed on the back of a Sky Bison. The creature was of a friendly nature. A bond soon grew between the two of them. Her spirit had so much in common with the Bison that soon she became able to manipulate gales, winds, breezes, zephyrs and everything aerial, with a better skill than her hairy companions. With the flying bovines, she fulfilled her dreams, she traveled around the world and met many kinds of peoples and creatures, went to extremely interesting places and had lots of exciting adventures. And each time she departed from a site, more and more people joined her with the bison until when they finally returned to the Patola Mountain Range, she, who would be known as the Skybender, had 101 followers, who could all Bend Air. The Skybender and the wisest of her friends set up rules: they would be free to go everywhere they wanted to; they would be free from money and people, by banning all types of currency and forbidding marriage; finally, they would show respect to all living creatures - not eating them - and especially the Sky Bison, their masters and their friends. They would further honor their furry companions by adorning their heads with arrow tattoos, similar to the Bison' arrows of hairs.
When the Skybender became old and frail, her friends built her small stone sanctuaries at the most important locations for the Bison, which would be expanded in the following sanctuaries and become the four Air Temples. She died at age 133, an old and merry woman, with 84 grandchildren and 252 grand-grandchildren. Unknown to her, one of her descendants, born in the Southern Air Temple, would become the Fourth Avatar, the first to be an Air Nomad."
Vapor swirled from the teacup, shaping into various forms. Iroh saw in it laughing children, high mountains, fluffy bison and many many other things.
"That's a beautiful story." he simply said. A disagreeable feeling was spreading in his body, like a piece of sharp glass tracing on his skin. They're all dead.
Someone coughed. A servant was standing there, but not Haoru. "Crown Prince," he shyly stated, "Fire Lord Azulon sent me here to tell you that his final test is ready on one of the most isolated islands."
"Islands?" Iroh repeated. He gave to Hayao a look of stupefaction.
The tutor shrugged. "We have a facility that holds Earthbenders in the southern, most remote islands. Student, maybe the Fire Lord wants you to observe how they fight. All I know is that he won't make you battle them. Too risky."
Iroh bowed. "Thank you for enlightening me today, Sifu."
The midget bowed in return. "Good luck, student."
As Iroh departed, Hayao took the Divine Whirlwind tile between two chubby fingers. A very old memory came back to his mind, a laughing boy with black hair and golden eyes, with another boy in the distance.
"Brother." Hayao whispered.
Jiuan had always been fond of vegetation. Flowers, mosses, weeds, fruits... But kneeling in the thorns near the banks of the Great Lake was the opposite of the usual pleasantness he associated with plants.
Mr Luong was desperately toying with his black sideburns, pulling, stroking and twisting them more and more. He was sweating heavily and looked like he could get up and run away at any moment. Save from the fact that the teacher was sitting on a stone bench while his pupil was suffering with thorns and spines, the main difference between them was that a bush separated them, making Jiuan hidden to the view of anyone.
This is such a wrong idea. Jiuan told himself.
"Are you still here?" Mr Luong whispered.
Jiuan sighed. "Alas, I am."
Indeed, the attractive Miss Wei, whose surname was Huang, was coming down the earthen path, heading straight towards them.
Even though the relationship between Jiuan and Mr Luong could have been summed up for most of their life as "Destroy him.", the teacher was now so unsure of himself that he had asked his arch-nemesis to stay close and make sure he didn't stammer or say something improper.
She sat on the opposite end of the bench. "Luong." she neutrally stated. "It's been quite a long time."
Jiuan rolled his eyes. "You're as beautiful as ever, Wei." he prompted.
"You're as beautiful as ever, Wei." Mr Luong repeated.
Miss Huang didn't blink an eyelid, but her reddened cheeks betrayed her emotions. "You're quite good yourself." she declared with a little smile.
Mr Luong beamed stupidly. Jiuan was about to kick him in disgust when Miss Huang took the poem out of one of her sleeves. "The verses you composed for me... They are the most beautiful I have ever read."
"But they say only the truth, Wei dear. They are so inferior to your beauty, your intelligence and all your qualities, so many I would grow old and turn to dust before reaching half of the list." Jiuan prompted.
Mr Luong parroted it perfectly. This time, Miss Huang blushed violently and took a silk fan out of her other sleeve.
"Now take her hand and kiss her passionately." indicated Jiuan.
"Now take her hand and kiss her passionately." reiterated Mr Luong.
Miss Huang dropped her fan. "WHAT?"
"No, idiot, do it, don't say it!" Jiuan snarled.
"No, idiot, do it, don't say it!" Mr Luong declared to the woman he loved.
"Idiot? Really?" Miss Huang coldly repeated.
She slapped him so hard that he was propelled backwards.
"WEI!" he called, as she strode away with proud steps. "WEI!"
From the thick bush erupted Jiuan's head, with twigs and leaves. "Stop whining and go get her!"
Mr Luong weakly tried and ran behind her; however, an ill-intentioned and badly located root made him stumble and he fell in the Great Lake.
"Help!" he yelled. "I can't swim!"
Jiuan watched his old teacher struggle in the water, on the verge of drowning. He knew he had to act quickly.
He ran away.
Mr Luong became so horrified and so angry that he instinctively opened his mouth to shout insults, roar some discreet "PUPIL JIUAN!!" or bellow some questions like "IN WHICH YEAR DID FIRE LORD SOZIN MARRY?" ; however, this only allowed water to enter even more freely.
Jiuan was blindingly fast. He spotted at once all the people who had remarked Mr Luong, sorted those who were the most threatening to his plan and targeted them. Not making the slightest effort to remain unseen, he charged and stole fifty-one wallets.
"My wallet!" yelped fifty-one persons. He was soon pursued by an angry horde. They sprinted around the Great Lake (with Mr Luong still drowning in the middle) ; he finally reached Miss Huang. Overtaking her, he stopped on the muddy shore and threw all the wallets in the lake.
With a roar of frustration, the fifty-one pick-pocketed persons all jumped at once in the blue water.
This was not over. He grappled with Miss Huang and ran away with a small leathery object.
"My wallet!" she shouted. She soon rose and hunted the pickpocket. They were before the spot where Mr Luong was drowning when she tackled him. Jiuan abruptly landed on his face, while the angry teacher pulled his arm behind his back.
"Give me back my wallet, you mongrel!" she growled. She put her foot on his face. "Where is it? TALK!"
"Help!" cried out Mr Luong.
She raised her eyes from the miserable shape of the kleptomaniac and her face turned chalk-white. "Luong." she whispered.
She raced towards the lake and dived. She wasn't swimming; she was flying on the water. With a strong hand, she grabbed the now unconscious Mr Luong and pulled his heavy body out of the water. "He swallowed too much water." she told Jiuan, matter-of-factly. "He's lucky I dated a lifeguard from Ember Island."
"Are you going to do some... mouth-to-mouth?" Jiuan inquired.
"Don't be silly," replied Miss Huang. She punched him on the chest, and a small geyser spurred out of the teacher's mouth.
She grabbed him by the shoulders. "Luong? Are you alright? Talk to me!"
He spit a little more water. "Wei..."
"Would you... would you marry me?"
She put his head between her delicate and manicured hands. "Of course, idiot. I thought you'd never ask."
She kissed him passionately (a Water Tribe kiss - Jiuan looked away in disgust) and although at first stunned, Mr Luong soon returned the smooch.
Someone put a hand on Jiuan's shoulder. He turned to face a policewoman and fifty-one soaked furious people.
Iroh was on a small ship, so old it might predate the War. They were headed to a small Island with a deep jungle and a small volcano in the middle. He turned to the north and saw a thin brownish-red line: the Great Island, where was the Capital City.
Although the Capital was in a bay closed by the Great Gates of Azulon, secret canals existed that allowed hurried ships to reach the Southern Seas without making a long detour. The ship had reached the island in barely two hours.
The prow of the metal boat opened and Iroh jumped on the warm sand.
"This is Littlonely Island." the captain declared. "It is called so because..."
"... because it is little and lonely." concluded Iroh. Two hundred feet east of the island, he caught a glimpse of an enormous ship with golden trimmings. Ah. Father's here to oversee the test by himself. "Will you stay here?" he queried.
The captain shook his head. "I'm sorry, sir, but my instructions are clear: we must leave you on the island alone. If you pass the test, your father will himself bring you back home."
"And if I fail the test?"
"The Fire Lord didn't precise."
I guess I will be left stranded on the island. Iroh mused. What an encouraging and merry thought.
The Crown Prince stayed a minute to watch the ship sail away. He then directed his steps towards the center of the island. "Let's prepare ourselves, shall we?" he told himself.
Two soldiers entered the dark cell and grasped the prisoner by the shoulders. Pulling her, they headed towards the hull of the ship. They weren't lifting her and her legs hurt, as she was dragged like the most common object.
Her chains rattled on the metallic floor. A sack, put on her head, blinded her and her arms were bound together with solid ropes. The aforementioned chains only were a supplementary precaution.
Suddenly, the interior of the sack became much lighter and she smelled the unmistakable scent of the sea. It had been such a long time since the last time she had been near the sea. It was a rather hot day, from what she could feel. They certainly were at close proximity with land as she could hear birds - not the screeching noises produced by seagulls but cheery songs, like she had never heard before. We must be in Fire Nation territory. she thought to herself.
Without warning, the troopers threw her on the deck. She slid on the metal on a few feet; luckily for her, the rough materials she was wearing protected her from any sort of harm; unfortunately, the chains pressured her skin painfully. As she tried to get up, she noticed her feet had been tied up together too. Blast.
"There is no need to struggle, you will soon be free." declared a cool voice, as cold as glaciers. It was so cold it actually made her shiver.
"Really?" she managed to muffle. "That would be the most pleasant surprise I had in years! The one I also the least expected from Fire Nation scum."
She was silenced by a kick in the back. "Watch your manners." spoke a gruff voice.
"However, this will only be temporary liberty." added the cold voice. "You will be freed only to accomplish a precise task."
"How surprising." She was kicked again, but she didn't really care. All this absurd discussion made her feel more alive than she had been in a long time.
"You will be disembarked on an island. There you will find a young man."
"I want you to kill him."
Had she not been wearing a bag on her head, she would have spat before the cold-voiced man's feet. "I've been captured, imprisoned and abused for years by the Fire Nation, and now, now you expect me to do your dirty work? This is so fun!" She was howling with bitter laughter. She guffawed for minutes without being able to talk. "Tell me," she eventually managed to articulate, "even if I pushed aside my presumptions on the Fire Nation, why would I do that, knowing I'll be put back in my prison, left to rot, at the second I'll be done with my task?"
"Oh, I think you'll appreciate it." She could almost imagine the cold-voiced man grinning evilly, and again she shivered. "You see, if you succeed, it could be considered as an act of bravery in your nation."
She frowned, wanting to hurt that wicked man. "Whatever you were taught at school, fiery bum, we're not beasts who consider pointless killing as a show of courage, unlike you."
"Did I mention this young man happened to be the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation?"
She stopped insulting him. "What?"
"Imagine how much it would weaken the Fire Nation you despise so much if the heir to the throne suddenly died."
Beneath the sack, her brow furrowed. "How old is he?"
"The prince? He's eighteen."
Good. I won't have slain a child. "Who's next in line to the throne after him?"
"I assume it is his baby brother, Ozai, who is two years old. A most pleasant infant."
"And how old is the Fire Lord?"
He didn't answer immediately. "Why do you ask such questions?"
"To see how much the Crown Prince's death would destabilise the Fire Nation." she sincerely answered.
He remained silent for a minute. "Fire Lord Azulon," he finally admitted, "will be fifty-four years old in a little more than a week."
She pondered on her possibilities. That man surely wants to overthrow the Fire Lord and is certainly planning the coup on the tyrant's birthday, to know it so precisely. With her mastery of bending, she was sure she would have no difficulties to terminate the prince. "You promise me," she queried at last, "that I will not be executed nor punished in any way if I succeed to assassinate him?"
"I do promise." he immediately said. "I'm a man of honor."
She sadistically beamed under her sack. "It's a deal."
Hidden by the leaves of the palmtrees, Iroh observed his father's ship. There seemed to be some activity on board, but nothing threatening. He had climbed up on the highest trees to try to see what would be his challenge, but the island was devoid of human life. Nothing had tried to attack him. It was most surprising.
Suddenly, the soldiers put an old rowing boat in the water. The rowing boat slowly closed on the island, directed by the tides. As Iroh watched with more attention, he noticed a person laying in it.
He silently went from a palmtree to another, ensuring he remained unnoticed by both his father and his troops and the boat's occupant. Each jump was carefully executed in order to not make the trees swing.
The rowing boat had now arrived on the beach, but the person inside didn't move. Upon more attentive examination, it looked like she - she had a feminine shape - was bound by ropes on her arms and feet. A sack was covering her head.
Not knowing what to think of it, Iroh decided to dare a closer approach. Head down, he descended from the last palmetto, moving gracefully and quickly like a spider-ape. He examined his possibilities. He could crawl on the sand to get near to her; however, this would be the direction he would be expected to come from. He could also try to get closer by swimming underwater, from which no one would presume he'd come; but the splash when he would go out of the sea to breathe and inspect the wood boat would alert the mysterious woman.
He decided to make her react and betray herself if her cords weren't linked at all.
Going to a safer distance, he scaled another evergreen; however, this time he went up to the very top. The palm tree, unused to such a load and of a tender consistence at its thin summit, bent slowly towards the ground. Iroh's face was only a few inches away of the sand. Tightening his hold over the trunk and using all the strength of his muscles, he slowly moved down, being careful to keep weighting on the tree. At a snail's pace, he then pulled the bole in the right direction. After that, he walked backwards until the tension in his hands grew so strong that he started to shake.
He dropped the trunk.
With blinding speed and a hissing sound, the long tree lashed the air and slammed all its leafy neighbours in a row with a loud whip noise. Some of them were broken, the others were pulled back on the other trees of the jungle with the same effect. To add to it, all the frightened birds flew off with flapping wings.
Anyhow, Littlonely Island went from complete silence to an impressive tumult in one second. It was so loud that from the corner of his eye, Iroh noticed his father's ship jerking suddenly and all the soldiers on board jumping at once.
But the woman in the rowing boat didn't move at all. She did look startled as she was now (poorly) trying to crawl out of the boat, but she hadn't destroyed her ties to jump on the beach in a fighting stance. The ropes were authentic.
Not knowing what to think of this, Iroh reflected on his options. She might be an helpful companion, without who the test won't start; in which case I should run and untie her. Or she is a bait, and my real opponents are lurking just behind in the water, waiting for me to stop being attentive to my surroundings to tackle me. Suddenly horrified by this idea, he dived in the ocean; but no evil enemy was hiding underwater. Besides, no human being would have been able to hold his breath for that long.
Iroh thus concluded that he had to free the woman. Even if there certainly were plenty of dangerous things that would happen to him as soon as she would be liberated, he was pretty sure nothing would happen at all if he just let her in the boat. Knowing his father, the Fire Lord could very well strand them on the island, where they would eventually die of boredom. A dull doom.
With a sigh, he walked towards the boat.
Watching in his telescope, Fire Lord Azulon smiled. "Finally."
Iroh dragged her out of the boat. The woman didn't say a thing. Maybe she's unconscious? wondered the young man. He had nevertheless seen her move.
He heated up his index finger and put it on the cords. They blackened and turned into ashes upon contact. He traced his finger in a vertical line on the entirety of the ropes binding her arms and, subsequently, on those attaching her dirt-covered feet. He heard him sigh with pleasure under the bag. He quickly pulled up the sack and uncovered her head.
She was a dark-haired woman, ten to fifteen years older than him. Her skin had a deep tan. In other circumstances she would have been gorgeous; however she had deep dark circles under her eyes and her face and wrists were very thin, as if she been malnourished.
She blinked as the sun lit her face and put a hand before her eyes. "Thank you." she told Iroh with a hoarse voice. Paying no further attention to him and still protecting her eyes from the sun, she got up and observed the sea and the long metal ship from which she came. Iroh remarked she was subtly surveying him from the corner of her eye, as if she was afraid he might stab her in the back.
She inhaled deeply as she rubbed her wrists. "My chi lines are disrupted." she explained, almost apologizing.
"Who are you?" Iroh questioned. "What is the test?"
As she moved her feet, making creak the articulations of her toes, she shook her head. "You have no idea why I am here, right?"
"I've been told I would be tested here."
She looked at the ship. "Oh, it looks more like a trap, to at least one of us." She looked at him thoughtfully. "My employer thinks he just has to say things to make me believe them, but I'm not foolish. I'd like to ask you one question, to see if he tries to manipulate me to wash his dirty laundry."
"Of course, go ahead." He smiled.
She smiled back. "Do you happen to actually be the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation?"
"Yes. I am." he replied.
Her smile slowly vanished, her face now only expressing cold determination.
"And who are you?" repeated Iroh.
Her blue eyes seemed to be as hard as steel. "You'll see."
With one hand she drew from the sea a monstrous wave which engulfed Iroh.
For many seconds, Iroh lost his orientation; he was unable to say if he was sinking or floating, where was left and right, where were the sky and the ground. He was just being pushed. It was quite interesting, being inside water, with all those blue and indigo iridescences. He could see white foam gliding on the edges of the water. It was beautiful. I'm drowning and I find this beautiful. I'll put that on the count of stress and the effect of surprise.
He hit a palm tree which stopped him; water continued to flow all around him but he was safe from its grasp.
The wave seemed to lose speed and weaken; all of a sudden, it sank into the ground, leaving the sand brown and muddy and him soaked.
Iroh spat water. "You're a Waterbender!"
She rolled her eyes. "Of course, dummy, I'm obviously not an Airbender." She grumbled. "I hope no one will ever a similar phrase as stupid as this one." She grinned. "Shall we continue?"
Iroh was about to answer: "No." when she bent a wave to support her and sent two streams of water to catch the Crown Prince. However, this time Iroh evaporated them with a quick punch. But he didn't see a third stream of water which caught him by the throat and pushed him on the tree. Gasping for air, he grabbed the long liquid tendril and cut it in half by turning it into vapor. She seemingly lost control of the water strangling him and it fell on his shirt, soaking him further.
"Come on, little Prince!" she shouted from the top of her wave. "You can surely do better than that!" She summoned ice daggers which she sent towards the young man's chest. He melted them with a quick stream of fire. "This fight is pointless!" he called out. "I don't want to hurt you!"
"That's quite a problem because I want to KILL you!" she retorted.
That's indeed quite a problem. Iroh told himself thoughtfully.
The water witch stopped bending her wave and it crashed with a thunderous roar on the beach, pushing Iroh backwards. She surfed on it with an ice board and reached quickly the point where the Crown Prince was trying to get up. Waving brutally her hand, she hurled him back on the sand and summoned from it all the water that had sunk inside. It looked like the island had been flooded.
The water was now creeping on Iroh and was dangerously closing on his nostrils and mouth. Concentrating, he unleashed his Breathe of Fire at the last moment, keeping all the aqueous liquid far from his face. Flexing his legs and stretching, he Firebent a wall of flames which further vaporized all nearby water.
The Waterbender stretched her hands and the sea rose. Only leaving a patch of dry land where its mistress was standing, it crushed Iroh. The young Firebender could only make enough water volatilize to survive, but not escape. More and more water kept coming and the pressure was building up. Iroh was in a small pocket of red-hot air he barely managed to preserve, his fingers trembling with the strain. His sweat floated away to join the roaring torrent.
The water witch turned her palms and the furious ocean swirled around Iroh, trapping him in a sphere of constantly rotating water. The Crown Prince was lifted five feet in the air in his liquid cage; he Firebent several streams of fire which managed to pierce through his prison, but water kept coming. Exhausted, he let his defenses crumbled and he was balloted aimlessly in the deadly water
A small whirlpool appeared on the surface of the globe, hollowing it, and Iroh was able to put his head through it. He breathed with relief.
"I would have expected better from the Fire Nation's heir to the throne." declared a cool voice. The Waterbending woman rose on a water spout and took his face between her fingers. "Now I will have to end your pathetic life."
"But why would you kill me? I have done nothing to you! I haven't attacked you a single time!" Iroh spluttered.
"Nothing? Maybe. But your death will enabling me to exact an unexpected revenge on the Fire Nation!" She turned to face the sea. "As it deserves it."
"Listen, I can understand that our actions in the war might look cruel and pointless to you, but believe me, it's only for the greater good." argued Iroh.
"The greater good?!" She slapped him with a water whip. "FIRE NATION HAS TAKEN EVERYTHING FROM ME!!!" she yelled. Tears appeared in her eyes. "I was five when the Fire Nation killed my parents. I was ten when the Fire Nation murdered my brothers. I was sixteen when the Fire Nation assassinated my lover! I was twenty when I was abducted! I've been imprisoned in inhuman conditions for fourteen years!" She was breathing heavily. "Why would I spare you when your kind never showed mercy?"
Iroh would have wanted to explain her the humanitarian reasons of the War, but somehow his arguments felt meaningless and empty before her pain.
"I don't want of your pity!" she shouted. She was even more enraged than before. She pointed towards his father's ship with her chin. "I would recognize these golden trimmings everywhere. Your father, the apparently much loving Fire Lord, gave me an incredible opportunity to avenge fifty years of suffering in the War. After I'll be done with you, I won't flee to the Southern Water Tribe where I would put my people in harm's way. I will attack this ship and tear Fire Lord Azulon apart. I will certainly die, but this will be what thousands of us have waited for pointlessly: vengeance. Without its leader and the person next in line for the throne being two, the Fire Nation will be crippled. We might even have a chance to win the War. My sacrifice will not be in vain."
Iroh sighed. What she had just said changed everything. "Is there anything I can say that will make you consider the disadvantages of such actions?"
"Then I'm sorry."
He inhaled and sunk back into the sphere of water.
She looked at him in amazement, not knowing what to do or think of what he had just done. She looked at him as he processed to bring the gulped air to his lungs, his throat convulsing.
The water globe exploded as a giant disc of fire tore it apart. Its blazing edges scorched the nearby trees and even lightly singed the Fire Lord's ship. The Waterbender was so surprised she lost her concentration and her water spout crumbled under her. Ironically, this was what saved her life, as the circle of flames passed where her head had been seconds before.
She got up. Iroh was standing in a circle of completely dried up land, his hands aflame. His face was deadly serious; his furrowed brow and angry eyes promised no good.
"Flee while you still can." he advised her.
"I can't." She took a fighting stance; behind her the ocean stopped rushing, waiting for her command. "I won't!"
"Then you leave me no choice." he declared sadly.
He was focused on his breathing. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.
They looked at each other, waiting for the first move.
His chi was rushing in his fingertips.
He Firebent a series of purposely weak fireballs, which she easily avoided.
She raised her arms. From the sea, dozens of tentacles of water rose, swirling, whirling, spiraling. A frightening yet superb sight.
Each tentacle was spinning, and with their sharp tip, they wouldn't just splash. They were a foot thick.
Her face distorted with rage, the Waterbender propelled the tentacles towards Iroh. They were slithering in the air, making their trajectory chaotic. It was impossible to foresee where they would strike. Iroh closed his eyes as the air penetrated his lungs.
Fire exploded out of Iroh's mouth as he opened his eyes wide. He jumped and released his Breath of fire on the tentacles from above. They turned into vapor, which blinded the water witch. She opened her eyes to see Iroh rocketing himself from the sky towards her, his fist flickering with flames. She gasped and with fluent moves, she made the sea push her ten feet away. Iroh landed, his fist slamming the ground and creating a shock wave which almost unbalanced the Waterbender - almost. She had completed her rotation around Iroh and struck him from behind with a massive wave. He was shoved into the ocean. The woman froze the sea around him, leaving only his head out of the ice, and created a dangerous-looking icicle whose base was stuck in the frozen sea. She made it slide towards her enemy, its very sharp edge closing on at great speed. Iroh blew on the ice, melting it with his hot breath, and sank into the deep. She frowned and ventured on the ice, moving smoothly on its slippery surface. The Crown Prince cracked through the glaze and sent a blazing arc with a quick thrust of his leg. The Water Tribe woman melted the entirety of the frozen water, descending into the ocean, and Waterbent an icy shield which vaporized the fire crescent. She then noticed her opponent retreating towards the island. She rose with a water spout and began to run on the water.
With a slow gesture of the hand, she summoned a water whip which grabbed Iroh by the ankle and pulled him abruptly. With his head down and blood rushing to his head, he somehow managed to generate a large fire blade which evaporated the water under the feet of the Waterbender. Caught off guard, she lost all balance and ricocheted on the sea before harshly splat on the beach. This, however, destabilized the water tendril holding Iroh and he came down as hardly as his foe.
They both got up at the same time. Iroh summoned a powerful fire stream with his two hands as the Waterbender diverted a tide and unleashed it on her adversary. The two elements met at the middle of the distance separating them, roaring and blending into a grey cloud of vapor, two lines, one blue and white, the other orange and yellow.
"Give up while you still can, Firebender!" she yelled. "We are equally matched. However, it only takes me minimal effort to draw this current from the limitless strength of the Ocean while you burn up your own chi in this fire! Surrender now, abandon this fight you've already lost." She grinned. "And your death will be painless."
Iroh's feet started to sink in the sand under the pressure emanated from the confrontation of their respective elements. She was right. He was losing energy quickly, while she wasn't even sweating. He however noticed something much more alarming: dusk was nearing. The sun was closer and closer of the western horizon, though he hadn't started his descent into the ocean. When it would have completely crossed the horizon, his power would dramatically decrease; in his current state he would be defenseless. And shall the moon rise...
The limitless strength of the Ocean, huh? Let's see how you fare far from water.
"Catch me if you can!" he shouted. He suddenly let himself fall on the ground and quickly sent a fireball with his leg, directed on the feet of his adversary. The time she dodged it, he had already disappeared into the jungle.
"Oh, don't think I'm stupid enough to follow you!" she muttered. She considered attacking the Fire Lord, but when she moved in the direction of his ship, orange flames burnt at her feet. She turned to face the forest but the Crown Prince was nowhere to be seen.
"Sneaky one, you are." she hissed. "You don't want me to beat up your daddy after all of this? Fine, it's your problem. I'll hunt you and kill you first." She looked out on the sea. "If you don't want to come to the ocean..." She raised her arms, chi sliding up in her veins. "... then the ocean will come to you."
She pushed the water with her bending; as usual it gently answered to her command. She smiled; it had been so long since the last time she had played with the tides. She pulled the sea when the waves urged her to release them; but she didn't allow them to go into the sand. Push and pull. Push and pull. Slowly, gradually, the wave she was holding grew in size. He did try to stop her; but each time she stopped his attacks and continued. She needn't worry about him; she had all the time she wanted. As for the ship, it didn't react at all.
It took her an hour, but in the end she had summoned an immobile tsunami, a gigantic wave, so enormous it would completely drown Littlonely Island. It was a very dangerous action; the sea wanted to be released and was heavily pressuring her; she barely managed to hold it. It could crash at any moment and kill her. But her determination was stronger than any force. Her hatred fed her bending.
She would not fail.
At last, a tendril of water caught her and lifted her at the top of the tidal wave. At its summit, mistress of its crushing mass, she felt omnipotent.
"It's time to for the prince of the Fire Nation to meet his doom."
Iroh hadn't been inactive while his enemy had created what might have been the strongest feat a Waterbender had ever done. He had taken leaves from the palm trees which he had braided into ropes; he had looked for the tallest trees near the central volcano; he had tied the cords near the tops of the trunks; and he had bound himself to the trees.
He had carefully calculated his actions. Shall the tsunami behave like normal tsunamis did, he would be beyond its reach. Shall the horrendous wave be unleashed from above, a sweet and thick heap of leaves and flowers, itself tied up to the ground, waited for him below. Shall his strings break and the water come from in front of him, he would be safely pushed on the mountain, with only a foot between his back and the slope and another foot between his feet and a small cliff.
There was of course the possibility that the palm trees would break and bring him to a certain death, but it was highly unlikely; he had been witness of their flexibility not two hours ago.
It reminded him of the old story of the oak and the reed.
Once the oak told the reed:
"You have so many reasons to curse Nature;
A sparrow for you is a heavy burden.
The least of the winds, which ripples the water,
Makes you always bow.
Whereas, me, with my brow as strong as the tallest mountain,
Not content with stopping the rays of the sun,
Vanquishes the struggle of the tempest.
Everything to you is gale;
Everything to me is breeze.
But if you had been born under the leaves
With which I cover the vicinity,
You wouldn't have to suffer so much!
I would defend you against the storm.
But your kind always dwells
On the wet limits of the Kingdom of the wind.
Nature, with you, is quite unfair."
"Your compassion," answered the shrub,
"Comes from a kind feeling.
But abandon this worry;
Winds to me are far less dangerous than to you.
I bow, but I don't break.
You have, for now,
Resisted against their horrendous blows
Without bending your back;
But let's wait for the end."
As he spoke those words, from the edge of the horizon,
The worst of the children
Ever born to the flanks of the Air.
The tree holds on;
The reed bows.
The wind is more vicious in his hits
And is so powerful that he uproots
The one whose head was neighbour to the sky
And whose roots reached the Empire of the Dead.
The sky darkened. The birds ceased to sing. And flew away. A rushing noise echoed from above.
The wave was obscuring the sun, spreading above the island until it became similar to a second sky.
It's like a very thin, very wide, very humid blue blanket. One very deadly blanket. Iroh thought.
From the top of the tsunami, the Waterbender released the tension in her fingers.
It came down.
There are few things in the Universe which are more frightening than tons of heavy water plummeting towards you, but no one ever survived to tell the tale.
When the water reached Iroh, he had closed his eyes. It struck with more violence than he had expected, thrusting him toward the ground while almost tearing his arms off. Luckily and as he had expected, his ties were weaker than his bones; he was unattached when he reached his soft, broad mattress of flowers. But the sea continued to pressure him, trying to squeeze him like an orange-lemon.
And as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.
Iroh got up, before falling on the ground. He was feeling dizzy; brightly-coloured dots were dancing before his pupils. The wave had left him breathless. Trying to rise again, he slipped; he was ankle-deep into salt water.
The joy, however, to have survived that titanic danger, submerged him; he started to dance in the soaked glade, happily noticing that the trees were still deeply rooted into the ground, as he had foreseen.
Something cold touched his feet. He watched down, and jumped.
Everything was freezing; whatever had been soaked by the tsunami was now being encased by a thick layer of ice; frost was creeping slowly towards him, coming from all directions.
He leaped on the nearest tree, which had turned into a cold slippery pillar. Ignoring the cool feeling that spread on his forearm, he managed to keep his clasp on the tree long enough to not be encased in ice.
Everything was silent now. It was like all of the things which existed had died. A cold draft blew on his shoulders, and he shivered as he put a weary feet on the frost.
Somewhere far away, the ice cracked. Then again, but closer. Someone was coming.
"Princiiie!" the water witch called. "Priiiiinciiiiiie!"
Knowing he wouldn't stand a chance here, he heated up his feet and started to climb the central volcano.
The Waterbender entered a little glade. At her feet laid the frozen remains of made-up ropes, and in front of her, footprints went up the mountain - steps so hot they had melted the ice to reveal the wet emerald grass underneath.
"Why couldn't you just die." she grumbled as she began the ascent of the volcano.
It looked from his footsteps that the Crown Prince had reached the crater of the volcano, as he was nowhere to be seen. A small heap of snow was now supporting her feet and pushing her on the slope. She was nearing the summit, as she was now at almost the same level as the frozen trees' highest branches.
What a fool. she told herself. Simply because he didn't want his feet to catch a cold, he leads me to him. She smirked. A complete fool.
From behind her, a fire lash hit the snow on which she was standing, breaking her balance and making her roll on the slopes while a continuous fire stream vaporized all the frost in a radius of several feet, leaving her defenseless. However, with an incredible surge of energy, she unfroze a close tree and used the now liquid water to stop her fall. Rising, she saw Iroh jump from the top of an ice column that was once a verdant tree and landing before her.
"How could you do this?" she shouted. "I saw your steps going into the inside of the volcano!"
He shrugged. "I walked back, careful to put my feet exactly in my prints. I then rocketed myself onto the tallest tree. As simple as that. I'm not that stupid to leave such blatant evidence of the direction I'm headed."
She summoned two water spheres around her clenched fists, knucklebones whitened with her fury. "But you still made a deadly mistake by directly confronting me."
She suddenly threw ice daggers at Iroh. His leg spinned and a blazing whip thrashed them until only drops were left. She summoned a giant wave which he repelled with his fire; however she simply made it turn to thump him again. He was hurled far from her until he crashed into one of the frozen trees. She pulled the ice around the trunk and effectively broke the entire tree which began to plunge towards Iroh. He exposed it to flames so violent it immediately caught fire, then with amazing agility, he jumped on its nearest neighbour, leapt from its top and struck it down with a burning fist. The two evergreens, one frozen, the other aflame, fell towards the Waterbender. She escaped by riding on a wave and froze it above the fallen trees; she proceeded to unleash an array of ice spikes longer than swords as Iroh ignited the air in a small pulsating orange sphere; when it met the solid ice, the fire bomb exploded, propelling the water witch backwards. She hit the frozen slopes of the volcano and lay stunned for a few minutes; but as Iroh arrived to face her, she created deadly sharp ice arcs which sliced the air over and over again. The Crown Prince managed to melt one or two but was soon overwhelmed by the speed and the number of the attacks; he hid behind a frozen tree which shook forcefully each time it was struck by the lethal ice.
He couldn't hide forever: the tree was already crumbling.
He had one option left.
He started to wave his arms, rotate them, made them move in slow, careful circles as he separated the positive and the negative.
But he was afraid, tired and confused, not knowing what course of actions he had to follow. His emotions mixed with the electricity and his eyes widened as he sensed it escape from his control.
It exploded in his face, blowing up the tree at the same time and leaving him without any protection. Knowing he only had seconds left before being hit by the final blow, he quickly moved his arms in the appropriate fashion and successfully generated powerful lightning, which hissed and crackled, ready to fulfil its bellicose purpose.
The Waterbender, her face lit by the eerie blue electricity, was staring at it with horror, terrified by this new maneuver.
He released the lightning.
But unstable, unbalanced by Iroh's own frightened thoughts, it zigzagged, went too high and degenerated into an explosion on the frosty flanks of the volcano.
The Water Tribe woman laughed. "Well, as impressive as looked this trick, you failed, I'm afraid; it missed by at least ten feet." Water hardened around her nails, creating ice claws. "A shame you won't have time left to practice."
"I wasn't targeting you." Iroh calmly stated. "And I perfectly achieved my goal."
He pointed to the mountain. She turned, as a deafening rumble filled the air. A mighty avalanche was rushing, down the mountain, at blinding speed. Straight towards her. The ground was shaking under the tremor of the white death.
Harnessing every bit of her chi, she projected all her energy towards the snowslide. With all her strength, she stopped it with her fingers as it was still ten feet away.
A hot fist was put on the back of her neck.
"It's over." declared Iroh. "I've been intentionally holding myself back, refraining myself from killing you, but now I finally own you. You can't use water to attack me or draw it from the avalanche, as your hold on it would break and you would be crushed. Surrender; I'll attach you and we'll both get out of it alive. But if you try to attack me..." Flames roared between his fingers. "... this time, I will show no mercy."
She smirked. "You will never have the guts to cold-bloodily execute me."
She sobbed. "It doesn't matter. My life ceased a long time ago. And I won't leave this island without having killed at least one member of the Fire Nation Royal Family, even if I die doing so!"
She lowered her hands. With a sound equal in intensity to thunder, the avalanche resumed its destructive descent, with renewed speed.
Iroh was completely dumbstruck by this. In front of him, the tons of snow were about to fatally bury him as at his feet the Waterbender was taunting him, shouting. "Come on, now, if you're so strong, kill me now. DO IT!"
With a furious groan, he allowed his chi to impregnate the air with his heat and Firebent a powerful stream of fire which was directed on the avalanche; it immediately started to melt, but not fast enough.
The water witch suddenly punched him viciously in the belly, making him fall, and she escaped on an ice board.
Iroh was free falling, parallel to the slopes, as the enormous avalanche was getting closer at each second; as it was about to swallow him, he released, from his mouth, his fists and his stretched legs, streams of flame, five uninterrupted furious streams of flame, which turned the snow into harmless vapor. The Waterbender watched from afar with a mix of awe and disappointment as he obliterated the dreadful avalanche.
Iroh suddenly noticed, as he evaporated the remaining patches of snow, that his Firebending seemed weaker than usual. Worse, it actually was decreasing in power.
I have a bad feeling about this.
He had, of course, an explanation, but he really hoped he was wrong. With abnormal difficulty, he rocketed himself on the top of the volcano, where his fears were confirmed.
The sun was setting, lighting the skies with a red fire. In about five minutes, it would have completely crossed the western horizon and his firepower would dramatically weaken. And he wasn't any closer of defeating the Waterbender than at the beginning of their fight.
A powerful flow struck him from behind and thrust him into the frozen crater of the dead volcano.
"So, you're unable to kill me?" the Waterbender told him from the edges of the caldera. "It's the first time I encounter Fire Nation scum with that kind of preoccupations." She drew some water in her hand and froze it in a long ice spear. "Probably the last time too." she mused.
With an expert hand, she threw the ice lance. Iroh barely had the time to crawl away to avoid it. He kept jumping as she let loose a shower of ice weapons: daggers, swords, spears, lances, stilettos, knives... It was a nightmare. He had to balance back the scales of the combat, as he observed the sky being lit with a darker golden hue - herald of twilight. Without warning, he leapt above the flurry of winter weaponry - with the help of fire propulsion - and caught the Waterbender by the shirt.
"Mind joining me for a last dance?" he smugly told her, his face lit by a vibrant smile. They both fell into the central hollow of the volcano.
They both at the same time bent their respective element against the other, moving backwards on a few feet as water and fire met. Iroh quickly however propelled himself with fire towards his opponent as he knew time was running out; in front of him, the Waterbender did the same on an ice slide.
They attacked each other at blinding speed, it was impossible to say what was the exact nature of their attacks. Fireballs, streams of water, fire arcs, ice daggers, blazing blasts, water whips...They all blended in a combination of vivid colours and powerful movements. It was quite a wonder they were still alive.
Iroh kept watching the skies, more and more alarmed as the vault of heaven turned darker at every second. He had one minute before the sun would begin its journey under the horizon; he had been waiting for an opening which had never come; but now he had to act, or otherwise it would be too late.
Without notice he started to generate lightning; but he was too slow; with a water tendril she pulled him and threw him again and again on the slopes of the crater. Of course he did the best he could to protect himself but even his strongest flames didn't shield him from the hardest blows.
She unexpectedly pulled him back towards. Facing his back, she confined his feet in ice, grabbed his wrists with hands while a blade of ice rode and threatened his throat; there were only forty seconds before sunset.
"How are you going to defend yourself now when I open your throat?" she whispered in his ear. "Now that you can't harm me with your fists your legs and your mouth?"
Thirty-five seconds before sunset.
"We princes are resourceful chaps. We don't need Firebending." He violently pushed his skull backwards, slamming it with the Waterbender's head. He then kneeled and pulled her above his head and she abruptly landed on the back. Freeing his feet from their icy prison, he put them on her hands, immobilizing her.
There were thirty seconds left before sunset. Iroh sighed with relief as he knew he had won.
"Again, surrender." he told her. "You can't move your hands and without them you're unable to bend. You're defenseless."
"Ah, but what will you do if I don't want to surrender?" She taunted him. "We can stay here in this position until we die of old age." Her eyes gleamed. "Will you kill me?"
Iroh remained silent for a few seconds.
"No." he finally admitted. "I can't."
"Oh, but I," she retorted, "I will!"
With her feet she Waterbent ice pillars which pushed Iroh in the back and projected him at the other end of the crater. As he tried to get up, ice crept on him, paralyzing him as he turned to face the sky.
The Waterbender appeared before him, her eyes expressing hunger, fury and an unbreakable desire for revenge, an obsession he would never dissolve, no matter how hard or how long he would try. She raised her hand and an ice spear materialized in it.
She raised her spear.
Above her, the gold, the orange and the purple of the sky suddenly became one with dark blue, day mixing with the night, neither exactly one, neither exactly the other.
This time he didn't have the choice.
His body lit up with his inner fire, his temperature rose to inhuman heights, the ice melted, the air heated and jets of fire departed from his body.
The water witch looked at him in an undecipherable way, drops of water only remaining in her raised hand, while with the other she clutched the blackened hole of her tunic.
She fell slowly on the ground. Iroh got up and kneeled at her side. She was watching the night sky and tears slid down her cheeks - tears of what didn't look like pain, but like sorrow.
"My people..." she murmured. "I didn't... I didn't avenge you." She sobbed. "I... failed."
Her gaze became empty and expressionless, and she stopped breathing.
Iroh closed her eyes. "I'm sorry." he moaned. Tears came to his eyes. "I'm so, so sorry."
He wept silently besides her lifeless body.
"It took you a long time." Azulon told him, drinking tea.
Iroh was walking on the deck, unable to talk at all.
"Is she dead?" asked the Fire Lord.
His son nodded. He was shaking. He tried to bow before him but he threw up on the metal deck instead.
Azulon gave him a cold look. "To give death for the first time," he declared, "is always distressing to one's mind." He seemed to notice Iroh wasn't feeling alright. "You must strengthen yourself, Prince Iroh. We, men of the Fire Nation, we live for destruction. Fire is the element of violence and passion. To be a true Firebender is to be on the battlefield. Each and every human is born the same way, like the lowliest of creatures; but we Firebenders, we superior beings, we experience our second birth in war, blood and flames, what we call our Birth of Fire."
"Why a Waterbender?" Iroh managed to gurgle.
His father frowned. "I received recently a most alarming military report. As you know, fourteen years ago our forces started to abduct all of the Waterbenders from the Southern Water Tribe. It was a complete success. The last catch was maybe a little difficult, but as you were able to see, the entirety of the southern Waterbenders was put in custody."
He looked thoughtfully in his teacup.
He got up and unrolled a map of the world which was behind him. "Our local troops, the Southern Raiders, have been suffering from heavy losses and many of their ships have been destroyed in strange ways: pierced, crushed, hammered... At higher latitudes, I would have accused Earthbenders. But the nearest Earth Kingdom territory not under our control, Kyoshi Island, is weeks away; we would have noticed an unmarked ship faring in those waters. But most surprising is the fact that the walls of ice of the Southern Water Tribe have been rebuilt perfectly in a very short amount of time."
He paused. "A feat only possible to Waterbenders."
He put his fingers on mountains on the southernmost continent of the map. "Of course, there had been rumors before...Legends of lost Waterbenders in an ice fortress on the top of lonely mountains. I had even sent an expedition on this mountain range. They never came back. The attacks began after that. It seems, that after all the efforts I put in the Southern Raiders' operations, Waterbenders have managed to survive."
Under the tip of his index finger, the Southern Water Tribe continent consumed on the map.
"You will be Born in fire and experience your first battle as you track, hunt and assassinate all the Waterbenders you can find in these mountains, and you will not leave the South Pole until no one is able to bend from puddles anymore." The entire map caught fire; the blue flames soon flickered to leave black ashes on the table. "I'll give you a fast ship and some of our best troops. You can take whoever you want with you."
Iroh didn't want to close his eyes, as he knew he wouldn't be able to repel the images of the glassy pupils of the Water Tribe woman.
Azulon put a hand on his shoulders. "No one can support the toll of the knowledge you've killed a human being under normal situations. The good soldier must have two hearts: one soft and loving for his family and everyone he loves; and one as cold and hard as a diamond, ready to do anything, feeling nothing; an unyielding heart, solidified by the knowledge you do... what you do because it is for the greater good. Each death gets us closer to our final goal..."
He looked at his son, obviously expecting an answer.
"Peace... prosperity... and harmony... forever and for everyone." he replied with a broken voice.
He nodded. "Good. Now go rest in your room. We're going back to our home."
As Iroh absentmindedly walked to his cabin, like a walking dead, for a very brief time, Azulon's gaze softened and became ... ambiguous.
On the next morning, Jiuan was released from prison after someone paid the expensive bail, actually so costly that his own parents had refused to pay it.
And that someone, of course, was Iroh.
The Crown Prince hugged his friend as he left jail. "How are you? I missed you. I hope you weren't treated too bad."
Jiuan patted him on the back. "There, there, Mommy, don't worry. What made you so sensitive?"
Iroh straightened. "Nothing." He looked strange. "Cixi is waiting for us in Hokuzai Boulevard. We'd better move."
They walked in silence for a few minutes.
"I've heard you were quite brave yesterday." Iroh finally told him. "Mr Luong paid a part of the bail."
"Oh yes. You're quite brave."
"Oh, come on. When compared to you..."
"No. You're courageous, selfless, loyal, caring. You have so many qualities...You ensured your worst enemy on Earth married the love of his life." He paused. "Whereas I..." He seemed to be lost in his thoughts for long seconds. "Believe me when I tell you that of the two of us, you're the best."
Jiuan grabbed his arm. "What happened yesterday on your birthday?"
He didn't answer.
"My father assigned me to my first mission." he abruptly declared.
Iroh shed a tear. By the Seven Hells, what's with him? Jiuan thought.
"Some recent events have led me to question what I always believed in." the Crown Prince admitted. "And I'll need someone I know will never let me down." He looked at him straight in the eyes. "Will you come with me?"
"Of course, buddy." Jiuan assured him. "I'll always be here when you need me."
Iroh smiled weakly.
"Hey!" Cixi ran towards them. Before she could say anything else, Iroh hugged her passionately. "I love you."
"Iroh? Are you okay?"
He kissed her. "When I'm with you, I'm okay. When I'm with you both." He stared at them, his kleptomaniac friend and his ... perfect girlfriend. "No man could dream of better companions."
They looked with tenderness at the busy life in the avenues of the Capital city, their hearts warmed by the knowledge that whatever would happen, the three of us would be here here to listen, comfort, laugh or dream with each other.
"I hope we'll go to some place sunny." Jiuan suddenly told them. "Where will this mission take us exactly?"
Weak. So weak. You keep thinking, and your emotions get into your way. It will kill you. As you deserve it.
Your blood spilled on the ground. Will be betrayed by the boy dearest to you.
You killed. You'll kill again. Wherever you go, you'll create, as you have done before, anguish, hatred, destruction.
It's the beginning now.
My blood spilled on the ground.
I, we, died. The remnants of my body rot in a dark place, surrounded by those I killed. But my spirit lives.
And will haunt you.
I killed. I'll kill again. Wherever I'll go, I'll create, as I have done before, anguish hatred destruction so weak my blood spilled on the ground my suffering who becomes your suffering it will kill as you deserve it so weak flesh distorted skin aflame body immobilized so weak sufferingmurderdeathdestructionbloodshedsoweakevil-corruptedsoweakmybonesonlyremainingpainpainpainyou'vekilledandyou'llDIE!
And you'll die.
And each day, as your strength wanes slowly until the darkest night, I shall haunt your steps and make you regret your actions.
You will hear my screams.
In the stillness of the night, silence had ceased to exist. In the corridors of the Royal Palace, a whisper echoed in the loneliness of the walls, reverberated and grew in power and volume, intensifying at each second, rising and sinking over and over again but never ceasing, borne by the wind before erupting on sleeping city. They all woke up, shut their windows, shivering. Children cried in terror, dogs barked like they were dying, all shuttered in fear.
It was the high-pitched scream of an agonizing man, but which had lost all humanity, the bellow of a wounded beast which sees death drawing near, the shriek, the screech of a tortured soul who had lost everything and everyone but life - until now. It was more terrifying than the hungriest barks of starved wolves that you hear when you're the prey, more bitter and distressing than the mournful yowl of a father discovering the dead body of his son, expressing more grievous pain that the most twisted mind could imagine, coming from beyond the darkest reaches of mortal imagination.
Cixi opened her windows and stared at the palace in horror as the never-ending wail echoed under the vault of heavens and the blind blank eye of the Moon.
"The Howl," she said.
- Hayao always tends to appear when Iroh has to wake up.
- Using preexisting fire, augmenting it and unleashing long-charged self-made fire, Iroh created a force of destruction equal to the one brought by Sozin's Comet. But as it is shown here, it is very straining.
- This episode started on Iroh's comment on the Air Nomads' good humor in "Bitter Work", and me thinking "How the heck does he know it?"
- Before anyone asks, no, Hayao wasn't a friend of Aang.
- This is because the first Air Nomad Avatar was born in the Southern Air Temple that it was the only temple to actually worship the Avatar Spirit, as evidenced by the central chamber.
- The proverb about democracy ... This is not an Air Nomad saying, but a roughly translated quote from Winston Churchill.
- The story of the oak and the reed is based on a real-world French poem. It might or might not introduce a sequel to Sozin's Blood which would tell Iroh's travels in the Spirit World. I don't know yet. It depends of what is my schedule in the years to come.
- It might seem huge and kinda Avatar-like, but the wave created by the Waterbender isn't that big : Littlonely Island is so small that you could make a complete tour in five minutes. Walking. Maybe I'll add schematics.
- The "last catch" Azulon is talking about is Hama of course.
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Sozin's Blood Chapters|
|Book 1: Sparks|
|The Second Prince - A Typical Day - The Twenty-First Day of the Eighth Month - To Live - The Beach, Part 1 - The Beach, Part 2 - Inconsistencies - Interlude : Cixi Alone - Southwards|